GPS - A Lenten Meditation:
Fr. Dr. K. M. George
A Lenten Meditation on GPS as a Modern Metaphor for God's Providence
Global Positioning System, commonly shortened to GPS, is an amazing invention. It has become an indispensable tool for navigation for all drivers in technologically advanced countries. Younger generation of drivers in the US, for example, who are so used to it might wonder how in the world people had been driving before the GPS age!
While you drive, a digital device the size of a small mobile phone in your car continuously displays your route on its touch-screen, locates your position and shows you the way at every point until you reach the final destination. You need only to tell the device in advance where you want to go.
In addition to the visible display, a gentle human voice tells you clearly where to turn left or right or go straight ahead, when to expect the turn and so on. It calculates your travel distance and arrival time. You can travel thousands of miles through territories totally unknown to you with its guidance. It normally takes the best route possible, and never plays tricks like violating one-way rule or taking risky short cuts.
A reliable guide, it never screams at you even if you commit an error. It is ever polite, gentle, honest and patient.
Some ten years ago when I first encountered this system I was struck by its spiritual connotations. It seemed to resemble some of the prominent aspects of God’s character and of divine providence as taught to us by Jesus and his Apostles. Although some religiously inclined people tend to condemn a lot of new technology as anti-spiritual, here is a technological invention, it seemed to me, that displays metaphorically the character of a compassionate God.
We know that GPS works with the help of radio signals travelling approximately at the speed of light (300,000 km/second) from satellites that are orbiting the earth about 20,000 km above us at the speed of some 14,000 km/hour. The GPS needs at least 3 satellites to determine our position on earth at any given time. The receiver in our car receives the radio signals from the satellites that are considered to form three imaginary spheres that intersect on the globe of the earth. The receiver in the car is at the point of intersection. So the car is being continually located or ‘seen by the eyes’ of three satellites. Thus we know where we are and where we are going.
An electronic device working with the satellites, GPS is very useful, though as with any machine, we need to exercise our common sense along with the device as we navigate. With all its present limitations let me take the GPS as a metaphor for God’s guidance in our life’s spiritual journey:
1. GPS raises some of the fundamental questions philosophers and sages have always been asking, for example,
• Where do I come from? Where am I now? Where am I going to?
• What is the right path I should take to reach my final destination?
• What should I do in case I have deviated from the right direction?
• How far is the destination and how long does it take to arrive?
The GPS answers these questions very clearly, of course, at the geophysical level. But these are the questions we need continually to raise at the spiritual and philosophical levels in order to find meaning and orientation in our life.
2. GPS is always compassionate and patient. Even if you take a deliberately wrong direction, disobeying what the GPS tells you, it never screams at you. It would be silent for a few moments and would gently say, ‘Re-calculating’ . Then it tells you the right path from your wrong location. Some old GPSs included the instruction: "Execute a legal U turn at the first opportunity". Of course, here you need to respond to the prompting of the machine if you genuinely desire to reach your original destination. You can refuse it, turn off the device and go on your own way. Still, if the device is kept open it will continue to prompt you to change your route wherever you go. This is what repentance means in spiritual terms. You need to respond to the promptings of the Spirit who respects your freedom. If you repent it can sometimes mean a total conversion or turning around –a U turn- (metanoia) in biblical terms.
3. GPS can be silently sad too! Can a machine ever be sad? Probably yes, if we develop adequately the mind-machine interface under research now! St Paul reminds us about grieving God’s Spirit ("do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God"- Eph. 4:30). The Holy Spirit suggests to us the right path from within us. The Spirit does not dictate but gently whispers the direction to us. However the Spirit never forces you. Your freedom is important. If you take the wrong step the Spirit may remain sadly silent for some time. God’s Spirit can sob, sigh and groan out of love for us (Rom.8:26).
According to the great teachers of the Church like the Cappadocian Fathers, this is God’s own character. God fully respects human freedom, and does not impose any yoke of authority on us. God is portrayed as a loving father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. The benign father puts all resources at your disposition and gives you full freedom. He is deeply saddened if you misuse it and squander the resources. He is not keen to punish or banish you, in spite of the advice of the other son at home who is formally faithful to the father and very worldly wise too. Instead the father is ever on the compassionate look out for you, the wanderer out in the world. Like the ‘three- eyed’ satellite regard focused on you, the Triune God follows all your random movements, and locates you every moment of your life. Even when you think you are completely uprooted and gone out of range, God knows where you are. But this monitoring is not impersonal and machine-like. It is more like the eyes of a loving mother who watches the unpredictable movements of her toddler child, ever willing to save her from danger and restore her to the right course of life.
4. GPS knows best: Given all correct parameters the GPS can take you to the final destination even when you legitimately doubt the wisdom of some of the ways suggested to you. It might take a long time to understand the meaning of what is happening to you now. As a spiritually mature friend of mine, reflecting on the meaning of all that is happening in her life ‘by surprise’ and ‘by accident’ wrote to me recently: "Not all of these are visible immediately. Sometimes we have to wait and see this in retrospect." I would say rather, we need to wait for centuries, of course, long after we are dead and gone, to understand the meaning of the present happenings and the sequence of events in our life!
5. GPS accepts us as we are. The way in which the GPS leads us to the right course beginning with the very wrong location we have chosen appeals to me a lot. After joining the Seminary I was struggling for years with the deep despondent doubt if my life’s choice was the right one. It was a very painful, undisclosed struggle. Once I shared this with my mentor and spiritual father metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios. He said to me that God could always transform my wrong decision into the right one. God could write straight on crooked lines. This struck a chord deep within me. In the very state of your despondency and deviation, God opens a path of light for you. Later again, I committed several major blunders in my decision-making process. But again one has to wait in all humility and see how God takes you to the final destination against all odds, even if you make a faux pas. St. Paul’s words have been a great assurance for many who are genuinely puzzled about all that happens to them: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28).
6. GPS, however, is uncertain about future: If an accident or a heavy traffic block occurs on your way the original prediction of the GPS will go wrong, and uncertainty will prevail. In the course of one’s life this is quite possible. The end or destination of our life cannot then be calculated biophysically or quantitatively as with the GPS. The final destination or end (eschaton in theological jargon!) is to be qualitatively perceived as the "kingdom of God in our midst’, the ever abiding reality of God’s presence within us. To reach is to be. To arrive at is to derive meaning from the present. Living out every moment in love’s sharing and in the joy of inner peace generates meaning. One can then realize the eschatological destination without necessarily measuring out or traversing a biophysical distance and time.
GPS, after all, is a human-made gadget. It can go wrong if not correctly programmed. We do not put our absolute trust on it however useful it may be. We have taken it as an interesting analogy or metaphor for God’s providential care for us. One may also, therefore, interpret the acronym GPS as God’s Protective/Providen tial System.
Fr. (Dr.) K. M. George,
From Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Great Lent 2013